JLife caught up with Prof. Alan Dershowitz to discuss his new book “Defending Israel” and so much more. Written and published to coincide with the start of a new school year, this book is a must-have for any pro-Israel student who is looking for the intellectual tools needed to defend Israel against the potential slings and arrows she will face on college campuses.
Israel vs. The World
JLife: You have been defending Israel for 70 years. However, in the past, Israel was the “David”—a small country, not wealthy and surrounded by enemies. Today, one can argue Israel is a “Goliath”—its GDP is higher than most European countries, it is technologically advanced, the “Leviathan” natural gas findings will make it very wealthy. And, around it, Arab states are disintegrating and Europe is not very strong. Is it more difficult to defend Israel today than it was in the past?
Alan Dershowitz: Definitely, but that’s not the reason. Israel is still the “David” and the Muslim world with over 1 billion people is still the “Goliath.” As Rafsanjani, who was the head of Iran, once put it, “If we drop one nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv, it is the end of Israel because Israel is a one-bomb nation. And, if Israel retaliates and kills 20 million Muslims it would still be worth it because Islam would survive, but the state of Israel wouldn’t.”
Israel is still very much the “David” surrounded by enemies. Some of the enemies are weaker than they were, some are stronger. Iran is actually stronger militarily and technologically though it’s poorer economically. The Gulf states have become less antagonistic towards Israel, but that’s only for now. Who knows how long that will last.
In the UN, Israel is clearly the “David.” Today, on college campuses Israel is the “David.” And, on the left wing of the Democratic Party Israel is very difficult to defend.
Israel is my most challenging client. Look, it’s not a genuine client (although I have represented Israel on a couple of occasions, pro bono). I talk about it as a client metaphorically. I have been called “Israel’s Defender” in the court of public opinion and I take that role seriously. It’s not an official role, but it’s become much more difficult to defend Israel where I live on the left and on college and university campuses.
JLife: What advice would you give college students who want to stand up for and defend Israel?
A.D.: It’s very self-serving, but to start I would tell them to read my book. I wrote it for college students. I deliberately published it at the beginning of the semester so that parents could give it to their sons and daughters who are going off to college because they really need to know the facts and have the arguments that are necessary to defend Israel.
So I think they have to educate themselves. They have to find out what the truth is. You know when I speak on college campuses and I say that the Palestinians could have had a state in 1948, in 1967, 2001, and in 2008, students are shocked. They’ve never heard that from their professors. They thought Israel has been denying them a state from the beginning. So being loaded with information and having an arsenal of facts is absolutely crucial.
JLife: Agreed, maybe the two books, “The Case for Israel“ and “Defending Israel” because “The Case for Israel” really arms you with a lot of information. Each chapter has a specific point and then it gives you the argument(s) to defend it.
A.D.: Right, right.
JLife: Israel is not a great marketer of itself. What would be your suggestions for public relations improvements and what should be highlighted specifically as it relates to the younger generation?
A.D.: OK, first the job of defending Israel should not be in the hands of the foreign ministry because the foreign ministry is a political part of the government. There should be a special office, under the President of Israel, that is in charge of making the case for Israel. Not making the Likud case for Israel, not making the Blue & White Party case for Israel, but making the general case for Israel. The non-partisan case for Israel.
JLife: The legal case?
A.D.: The legal, the political and the moral …All. But, it should be in the hands of the president, who is the most nonpartisan official in the Israeli government. Obviously, the current president was a member of Likud, but the position is a neutral/nonpartisan one. So that is the first thing. All of the efforts to present Israel’s case should come not through the Foreign Ministry, but through the president’s office because the last thing we want is the case for Likud or the case for Netanyahu or the case for the current government. That’s not what young people want to hear. They want to hear the general case for Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The case for it to use proportionate force to defend itself. Those are the issues that need to be presented.
JLife: Today, in the US, we are witnessing the emergence of anti-Semitism within the Democratic party—members of “The Squad”—with no real criticism from within the party. Do you see it as a cause for concern – not only to the US itself, but also as it relates to our relationship with Israel?
A.D.: Definitely, and I see it particularly as a concern as a liberal Democrat. I want to remain a Democrat. I want to help strengthen the Democratic Party, but to do that they have to marginalize “The Squad” and they have to marginalize extremists on the Left who would end the bipartisan support for Israel.
Personally, I’ve been quite disappointed with even the centrist leadership of the Democratic Party for not doing as much as they should be doing to respond to “The Squad.” Particularly, the two congresswomen from the Midwest. I’m less concerned with the congresswomen from Massachusetts and New York. I have much more concern with Talib and Omar. They ought to be responded to by the leadership, they ought to be marginalized and they should not be given significant committee assignments.
JLife: And that’s not happening. What about Talib and Omar’s ties to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)? Is that a problem?
A.D.: Every individual should be judged as an individual. Their associations with groups that are anti-Semitic or pro-terrorism should be investigated and should be exposed. CAIR is certainly an organization that has had a very questionable history.
JLife: You cover this is your book. Many anti-Semites argue that criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitism, thereby justifying their bias. How do you view the difference between being anti-Semitic and simply criticizing Israel?
A.D.: Criticizing Israel is a good thing and people should continue to criticize Israel. Criticism makes a country better. I love America and I criticize it all the time. I criticize its current policies, I criticize its current president, its current leaders of Congress. Criticism is good. Demonization is what is bad. The three D’s that Natan Sharansky has articulated. Demonization, double standards and delegitimization. When you single out Israel with a double standard, attempt to destroy it and challenge its existence. That crosses the line into anti-Semitism. When only the nation-state of the Jewish people is subject to BDS, that proves that BDS is not a generalized movement, it’s an anti-Semitic tactic.
JLife: What’s in your opinion the best way to fight the BDS movement, apart from the numerous speeches that you and others give at universities and high schools? How do we in the US combat hard-Left leaning professors and what they’re teaching the new generations?
A.D.: Well, first of all, professors should not be teaching students what to think, they should be teaching them how to think. I feel that fighting BDS requires exposing what its true agenda is, which is the end of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The leader of BDS, Omar Barghouti, has said he wants to see a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea,” which means Tel Aviv, Haifa, Bnei Brak and Western Jerusalem… all of it to become Palestinian. Most students don’t know that. They see the BDS movement as a moral tactic. They don’t understand that its goal is the end of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
The Peace Process
JLife: The Palestinians and Israel have been unable to reach peace…
A.D.: I wouldn’t say that. I would say the Palestinians have been unable to reach peace. They have been offered peace over and over again and “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” They can’t take “Yes” for an answer. They could’ve had a state if Yasser Arafat hadn’t listened to Jimmy Carter. I tell the story in my book how Arafat listened to Jimmy Carter. They could have had a state in 2000-2001. They could’ve avoided 4,000 deaths in that Intifada following the peace offer from the Israelis. So it’s not that the Palestinians and the Israelis haven’t been able to make peace, it’s that the Palestinians haven’t accepted peaceful offers.
And, this may be their last chance. The Palestinians are losing support among many Sunni Arabs. Many Sunni Arabs that I speak to all the time from the Gulf Coast, the Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. They say, “You know, enough with the Palestinians.”
They’ve had so many opportunities and they have rejected these opportunities. The Trump Peace Plan may be their last realistic hope. And, it’s a very good plan. I can’t tell you what’s in it because I was sworn to secrecy.
JLife: So you know what is in it?!
A.D.: I know what’s in it. I was involved for two days in consulting with Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, Avi Berkowitz and others on the plan. I read the whole plan as it existed then from the beginning to the end. It’s a very good plan. It’s a good plan for the Palestinians. It’s a good plan for the Israelis. It’s a good plan for America. It’s a good plan for world peace. But, the Palestinians won’t even open the envelope. They’re not willing to even look at the plan, not willing to attend meetings, not willing to engage or negotiate.
They are not going to get a state through BDS. They are not going to get a state through UN resolutions. They will only get a state if they sit down and negotiate and make some painful compromises that Israel will also have to make in order to achieve peace.
JLife: Bibi recently announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley if he gets elected again. And, he said that he had consulted with the Trump administration on that decision. The way we see it, if you annex the Jordan Valley and you also annex Judea Samaria, we are not talking about a two-state solution anymore, which is what you have long advocated for.
A.D.: Right. The Jordan Valley from the days of the Allon Plan, which were articulated in 1967, were always intended to be Israel’s Eastern border. Israel always needed to maintain the Jordan Valley as its Eastern border. How this is done is subject to negotiations.
Annexation is one way. Another way is a 100-year lease. A third way is simply permission by the Palestinians for Israel to station armed forces in the Jordan Valley. But, one way or another, every one has acknowledged from ‘67 on, that Israel cannot abandon its military control of the Jordan Valley in the foreseeable future.
The New York Times and other media gets it all wrong when they say the Jordan Valley is one-third of the West Bank. It’s not one-third. It’s much less than that. Particularly since the Netanyahu statement would exempt not only Jericho, but the areas around Jericho and other population centers. It would mostly be control over unpopulated areas where Israel already has troops today. Much of the area that Bibi said he would annex is a “no-go zone” for Palestinians. It’s a military zone. So the media has way overplayed this.
Also, Bibi has never said that he would annex the West Bank. He would annex the settlement blocks that are right outside of Jerusalem such as Gilo, Ma-ale Adumin and Efrat, but not the heartland. I mean nobody is talking about annexing Ramallah. Nobody is talking about annexing the other major population centers. There could still be a very viable Palestinian state.
Indeed, if you’ve been to Ramallah, as I have on several occasions, it is a mini-state. You never see an Israeli policeman there. You never see an Israeli soldier. It’s self-governing. It has elegant stores and buildings, people drive around in Mercedes. It’s a Palestinian state and that kind of state can exist throughout the West Bank. Probably around 80% or more of the West Bank.
Remember, Israel offered 95% of the West Bank and it was rejected by the Palestinians in 2000-2001 and it was not accepted in 2008. So they’re going to get less now, but they’re going to get less because of what they’ve refused to do and failed to do.
Every time you reject a peace plan and go to war you’re going to lose. You’re going to lose territory. So I think the two-state solution is still very viable. And, it will be a contiguous state on the West Bank.
Under the peace plan there may be some connectivity with the Gaza depending on what happens in the Gaza. That is a whole other issue. We’ll see if the Gaza can be included in any part of a peace proposal with Israel.
JLife: Do you think that’s a plan that a right-wing government can pass considering Bibi and his intent to form a coalition with the religious groups?
A.D.: Well, we will see. I mean the election is in a few days. And Israel, as you know, has two elections. One on the 17th and then the negotiations that take place afterwards, which is a whole other election basically. Nobody knows what the Israeli government will look like in a month.
JLife: That leads us to another question. In your book you mention a moment with Bibi where he put his hand around your shoulder and asked you, “Did OJ do it?” Any other interesting interactions with Netanyahu that you’d like to share?
A.D.: That was a funny one because he said there was a question that he always wanted to ask me… So he asked me about OJ and I said, “There is a question I’ve always wanted to ask you… ‘Does Israel have nuclear weapons?’”
I’ve had many interactions with Bibi. I stayed up with him until 2 o’clock in the morning in his home. We’ve watched soccer games together, smoked cigars together, we’ve gone to Yeshivot together, and made speeches. I regard him as a personal friend as well as his wife Sara.
I have known Bibi since he was a young student at MIT. We met in the early 1970s when he and I were both on a show called “The Advocates” and when Israel was celebrating its 25th anniversary. So we have a close personal friendship. We were friends when he was in New York at the UN, we were friends when he was in Washington. And, we remain friends whether he is prime minister or not. He came to our home in Cambridge for dinner when he was not the Prime Minister—between his prime ministerships—with Elie Wiesel and a handful of other people. So I will maintain my close friendship with Bibi whether he remains in or out of office. Obviously, it’s a lot more interesting to have access to the Prime Minister of Israel and so we will wait and see if he is the Prime Minister of Israel in another month.
JLife: In another week (interview conducted on Sept. 12, 2019).
A.D.: In a week we may know, we may not know. One possibility of course is a shared government, which Israel has had before. Where you have Gantz and Netanyahu dividing with one being the prime minister and the other being the foreign minister.
It’s hard for me to imagine an Israeli government that is totally without Netanyahu. Netanyahu has these amazing contacts abroad with India, China, Russia, Eastern Europe (Romania, Poland, Hungry, Latvia, Lithuania), etc.There is nobody, no individual in Israel, who has closer contacts and more diplomatic contacts with leaders of the world. And, most particularly of course, with President Trump. So one way or another I would hope that Netanyahu would remain in charge of Israel’s diplomatic and foreign policy.
JLife: The problem is they say there are not going to form a government with him because of his legal problems… legal things that you yourself have criticized.
A.D.: Well, they say a lot of things. We’ll see what happens. You know by the time your article is published it may have happened already so…
JLife: Can you also elaborate on PM Netanyahu offering you the UN Ambassadorship and your refusal to take the role, despite it being the ultimate position for an Israeli defender such as yourself?
A.D.: I’d love to have taken it. If I had been born in Israel I would have taken it in a minute. I was shocked to be offered it. What happened apparently was that the only candidate that he and Lieberman could agree upon was me. And, the unfortunate part about it is I am not an Israeli citizen. I would have willingly become an Israeli citizen, that’s easy. They did say I would not have to give up my US citizenship so they made it easy for me. But, I did think that it did two things I did not want to be a part of…
Number one: I think it was somewhat of an insult to the great Israelis who could become ambassadors. For instance, when I said, “No” they appointed Ron Prosor, who was fantastic.
I couldn’t have done any better than he did. He was unbelievable. Obviously, he consulted with me a lot and I was honored to consult with him. But, I couldn’t have done any better. And, it’s much better in the end for an Israeli to be there.
Number two: I didn’t want to give credence to the arguments of dual loyalty. My loyalty is to the United States. I just didn’t want to be in that position.
When I turned the job down I couldn’t have imagined that the United States and Israel would be at such odds at the end of the Obama administration. But, when my former student Samantha Power didn’t veto that horrible UN resolution at the end of 2016… If I had been the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, I would have raised the roof against the United States and complained bitterly.
JLife: Where would you like to see Israel in say 20 years from now—your idyllic situation as it relates to Israel—as it relates to the inner workings of Israel’s politics and Israel’s relationship with the outside world?
A.D.: Well, I would like to see the world leave Israel alone. Jews are supposed to be the chosen people, but we have been chosen for some very negative consequences. I think what Israel needs more than anything else is normalcy. It needs to be left alone.
It needs not to be the object of UN resolutions. Of academic resolutions. Of New York Times first-page stories of everything that happens in Israel. I would love to see, in 25 years when I am 106 years old, that Israel is just like Finland.
Most people don’t realize that Israel is the size of New Jersey, has the population of Papua New Guinea and yet it gets more space in the media and at the UN, and on college campuses than China and Russia combined. So, I just want to see normalcy. Now Israel is going to have to—once there is peace and I think there will be peace—I think Israel is going to have to resolve its own problems. One of which, in my opinion is the role of religion in Israel, the power of “Charedim” (ultra-Orthodox Jews) to determine who uses the Kotel.
I think the marriage laws in Israel are a disaster. The marriage and divorce laws are both a disaster. And, I myself would like to see a termination of the Chief Rabbinate position and the rule of the rabbinate in Israel. I would like rabbis in Israel to be treated like rabbis in the United States. As private citizens who have complete freedom of speech and complete freedom of religion and can try to persuade people to do it that way, but have no power over… no compulsion over anybody. That is going to be a tall order. Ben-Gurion was a great leader, but he was not perfect. And, he made a terrible mistake by allocating the kind of power he allocated to the Chief Rabbinate.
JLife: We’ve read that you have argued that addressing that issue alone would help with Israel’s relationship—especially with the Reform movement—with the diaspora more than anything else.
A.D.: Well, it’s the one issue where Israeli policy really affects us, Jewish non-citizens of Israel. When they tell me my Rabbi isn’t good enough to have his Halachic decisions accepted by Israel it affects me. When my wife and I—I was brought up Orthodox, but my wife was brought up conservative and of course I always listen to my wife; she wins every argument—we like to daven in a Conservative synagogue. I like to hold her hand and pray with her. I want to be able to do that at the Kotel. Not at the central part of the Kotel, I recognize the central part of the Kotel should always remain an Orthodox synagogue, but the Kotel is very large and there is room for Conservative, Reform and Secular prayer. I think that the Kotel is a heritage of all Jews, not just of Orthodox Jews.
So it does affect how Americans look at Israel. I think that peace would also strengthen the ties between the diaspora and Israel. It’s a very important issue and I’m glad that there are some very important people like Herzog and Sharansky and others who are playing an important role in trying to bring together the diaspora and the Israeli communities.
JLife: That leads to our final question—and we hope that you are still fighting for Israel when you are 106—but, who do you see following in your footsteps? Do you have anybody in mind?
A.D.: I hope so. I train and I have taught a lot of students at Harvard and other places. The problem is many of the young people who are very strongly supportive of Israel tend to be conservatives and I would like to see a mixture. A mixture of conservatives, liberals, men, women, straight, gay, people of color, people who are white, etc. I’d like to see a greater mixture. You know I’m trying to devote my final years as an advocate for Israel, to developing people who can follow in my footsteps, in Irwin Cotler’s footsteps, in Elie Wiesel’s footsteps. The three of us have played leadership roles. Elie is gone, I’m 81, Irwin is probably 75 or 76 and we just need younger people.
Look, there have been efforts recently to try and quiet my voice with false accusations and all of that kind of thing. I think I’ve disproved that and will prevail.
I will continue to defend Israel, but we need to have others as well. No one person can do the job. I’m hoping readers of this article will be inspired to try to devote at least some of their time to defending Israel. I have been fortunate enough to play that role in the public arena for many years and I hope I still have a few years left.